Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Avocado Tree Adventures

In Douala, soon after starting my life in Cameroon, I planted an avocado tree from a pit, in the back yard, in the empty area between the two houses in the family compound. Fulfillment of a dream, after years of trying to grow plants from avocado seeds as a student in Paris.

A couple of years later, the tree was as tall as me, and thriving. Unfortunately, my father-in-law decided he needed the space to build an annex to his house. I protested. He informed me that my tree was none of his concern--just a silly little tree, in a country where many plants grow very fast and very tall. However, this avocado tree had enormous sentimental value for me!

While I was stewing, an American agricultural engineer, Ben, on a business trip to Douala, came to our house for lunch. Upon my inquiry whether there was any way of saving my tree, he instructed us to cut off all the leafy branches, dig a large hole around the tree, and gently remove the tree with its roots in order to re-plant it elsewhere. So one hot afternoon, post-lunch, when everyone else was napping, my brother-in-law followed the instructions and together, we moved the tree to another available space near our office (which was in the same building as our home).

2012: the avocado tree
(or the descendant thereof) 
Fast-forward a few more years: the tree was 10 years old, and was towering over the roof. However, it had yet to produce a single avocado. I went to ask my mother-in-law why the tree was still barren after so many years; the tree seemed to have recovered from the transplant trauma a long time ago. After listening to the story, she took out her machete, went to the tree and started hitting its trunk with the blade. I was flabbergasted--and worried. Then she threatened the tree out loud: "If you don't bear fruit soon, I'll cut you down!"

Lo and behold, the tree grew a couple of avocados a few months later; and the next year we had so many avocados, that we were giving away bags of them to people. They were delicious and plentiful. As far as I know the tree is still producing to this day a yearly harvest.

2020 update: Unfortunately the mayor's office decided to enlarge some streets (without compensating homeowners) and as the tree was close to the edge of the compound, down it went.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Duala Men's Attire

In daily life: work, parties... Cameroonian men usually wear the same clothing as in Europe, the US, Australia, and much of the Middle East and Asia: shirts, slacks, and so on.
Traditionally, however, Duala men wore, and still wear for specific occasions, a large fabric fastened at the waist called a Sandja. Originally, sandja fabric was made of tree bark, beaten till it was fine and soft enough to be draped. In Congo, a woven style of tree bark fabric is still made today, called "Kuba" cloth.
There were three different ways of wearing the sandja: Held up at the waist to form short sherwal-type pants*; knee-length; and the ceremonial style, still worn today, full-length. That is the style I saw the most, often called "Sandja Ngondo" because it is worn for the Ngondo celebration (which had not been celebrated for 20 years when I arrived in Cameroon).
My first experience of men wearing a sandja was at funerals, when men wore a black velvet cloth, with a white shirt, and 2 black scarves: one around the shoulders, and one around the waist. If the deceased had suffered a violent death, a red band was also worn around the upper arm.  (The women wore kabas, the Duala traditional dress inspired by the Protestant missionaries' influence.)

*For a short explanation of what a sherwal is, click here